Women in the Literary Landscape
The Founding Story
From pages 177–180
“Dear Madam: You are cordially requested to attend an informal meeting to be held at Sherwood’s Book Store, No. 19 John Street, New York City, on Monday Evening, October 29, at 8 p.m. Ways and Means will be discussed looking toward the organization of a social league or club among women in all branches of the book trade,” read an invitation that marked the founding of the Women’s National Book Association.
Not coincidentally, the request arrived in the mailboxes of thirty-five booksellers soon after the large suffrage march on Fifth Avenue on October 27, 1917. Contemporary reports noted that twenty-five thousand people marched in the parade, some carrying posters with the signatures of one million New York women who wanted the right to vote.
The signers of the invitation were six prominent women booksellers whose gender prohibited them from membership in the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and the Booksellers’ League. They were: L.M. Pleasanton of Brentano’s; Josephine Pfanstiehl of Hubbell, Leavens Co.; E.F. Widman of F.A.O. Schwarz Co.; Lula Jacobs of Greenhut’s; Belle Morris of Keche & Co.; and their gracious hostess, Pauline C. Sherwood of Sherwood’s Book Store.
Given their exclusion from the ABA, women’s seven-decade battle to achieve the vote, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s alignment with the war effort, the 1917 creation of a women’s organization of booksellers with an activist agenda seemed justified. So they came—about fifteen women—to No. 19 John Street
and sat around on high stools. No one seems to remember just who these women were, beyond the committee members who signed the invitation, plus Madge Jenison of The Sunwise Turn Bookshop and Effie Hubley of Loeser’s.
Madge Jenison, one of the WNBA’s founders and its second president, wrote in later years about the idealistic fervor that informed the group:
The Women’s National Book Association was founded when great ideas were about. It was in the years of the First World War, toward the end of it. Big ideas of civilization and what we wanted of it; how we could keep all we have and get some more. It seemed to us that books are power—that if we could create a working body of all those who have to do with the circulation of ideas in books...if we could start up such an organization, we would have a mechanism, through which we could throw our weight en masse behind anything in which we believed; that we could even stop war if our organization became complete and vigorous enough. Books are a step above the newspapers, magazines and radio. They are the cream of the crop. And it seems to us logical that women should undertake such an enterprise as this.
Enthusiasm for the organization continued to rise. Two weeks later, by which time the New York State Legislature had granted women residents the vote, “They met again, with thirty-five women present, on November 13, 1917, and formed a permanent organization. The first President was the little woman with the big idea—Mrs. Pauline Sherwood, of Sherwood’s Book Store,” recalled Belle Walker in a July 21, 1921, Bookman report.
By the time of Belle Walker’s article, women’s political status had changed. Not only had American women achieved the vote with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, but the WNBA was so widely “recognized as a factor in the book business,” that the ABA invited the organization to become a member.
The WNBA considered that invitation warily. Possibly that was because of its tone. As the new organization’s second president, Madge Jenison, noted in a September 2, 1920, meeting, the ABA had not merely issued an invitation but “urged that the WNBA be merged” within the men’s organization. Subsequently, “it was voted that the president reply expressing appreciation of the invitation but courteously declining to merge at the present time.” Nevertheless, “there was further discussion of the relations between the two Associations…especially for the necessity for getting women appointed in the future to all Committees of the ABA instead of only one or two committees as at present.” In short, the women of the WNBA believed that one condition for joining the ABA would be that its members would have an important voice in the formerly all-male organization. Already that representation had been achieved in a related industry event. As Walker noted in her 1921 Bookman report, two WNBA members had been elected officers at the Booksellers Convention in the past two years. Walker wrote, “And so the Women’s National Book Association feels that, young and imperfect as it is, it has a place in the fallow fields of book distribution. For its desire is to be both pupil and guide in the literary Labyrinth, to be with those who are building for the great future of the limitless possibilities of the book business.” Almost two decades after the organization was formed, the inaugural issue of its newsletter, The Bookwoman, reprinted the WNBA Creed linking the importance of women in the world of books to the democratic spread of human thought:
Believing that it is impossible to isolate any single instrumentality in the great arterial circulation of thought, this Association is created to include in a single working body, women writers, women booksellers, women critics, women editors, women librarians and women advertisers, together with women employed in the printing and bookmaking trades and in publishing houses, as a means to education to more consciousness in ourselves and as an organized power to further in every instance we can make use, the freer movement of life and truth.